Middle East Eye / March 11, 2023
Pegging the fulfilment of Palestinian rights to a negotiated agreement Israel is committed to ensuring never happens has enabled the occupation to relentlessly march on.
Small wonder the United Nations General Assembly closed out 2022 by voting to request an International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court) opinion on how Israel’s annexation project, denial of Palestinian self-determination, and discriminatory legislation “affect the legal status” of its occupation of Palestinian territory.
If the Palestinian case prevails, the world’s preeminent judicial body will rule Israel’s military control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem flagrantly illegal. As a raft of authoritative legal studies have demonstrated, such a judgment would require Israel to immediately withdraw from the annexed Palestinian territories.
Paramount in this case is the legal concept of “good faith”. In 1971, the World Court determined that a state which refuses good-faith negotiations to end its occupation forfeits its rights as a belligerent occupant. Consequently, it revoked South Africa’s right to a “continued presence” in southwest Africa (Namibia). The Afrikaner apartheid regime subsequently plunged into pariah-dom, and two decades later, Namibia emerged independent.
Israel’s military domination of Palestine is likewise illegitimate. But even as they denigrate the World Court, Israeli officials turn the Palestinian accusation against itself. “The Palestinians have rejected every single peace initiative,” inveighed Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan. “And now they embroil an external body with the excuse that the conflict has not been resolved?”
Erdan’s charge recalled Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s infamous aphorism that the Palestinians “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace”.
But history records a different story.
Obstacle to peace
Here’s the truth, in brief: since the mid-1970s, the UN has upheld an overwhelming international consensus for resolving the festering “conflict”.
Predicated on fundamental principles of international law, it consists of a two-state settlement including Israeli withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the vacated territories, Palestinian-Arab recognition of Israel and a “just resolution” for the Palestinian refugees.
In January 1976, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) offered to negotiate the terms of this “two-state” consensus. With Washington’s support, Israel refused the good-faith Palestinian proposal. Choosing expansion over peace, it has done so ever since.
A closer look at this historic moment demonstrates that Israeli-American bad-faith rejectionism is, in fact, the primary “obstacle to peace”.
The January 1976 resolution was first brought to public attention by Professor Noam Chomsky – who argued it “quite clearly” demonstrated Palestinian recognition of Israel – but the draft UN Security Council resolution remains little known.
Today, Israel’s apologists misrepresent the 1976 offer as a formula for Israel’s “destruction”. And yet, by shedding light on the negotiations from which the peace initiative emerged, my archival research confirms Chomsky’s analysis. Let’s set the record straight.
In the wake of Israel’s 1967 conquests, Israeli and Palestinian leaderships both spurned the international consensus. Repudiating UN efforts to negotiate its withdrawal, Israel launched an “insatiable quest for Lebensraum” in the West Bank. Conversely, the PLO refused recognition of a state built on the dispossession of its people and instead sought to retrieve all of Palestine, “through armed struggle”.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat soon signaled his willingness to exchange recognition of Israeli sovereignty for Palestinian self-determination. But it was not until the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war swung “the tide of world opinion” in Palestine’s favour that Arafat thrust his case into the UN, ambiguously offering Israel “the gun or the olive branch”.
‘Tyranny of the veto’
Two years later, the PLO delivered the olive branch via the January 1976 resolution: co-signing a Syrian initiative at the Security Council, it promoted a text that for the first time incorporated the international consensus within a single UN document. Calling for independent Palestinian statehood, the draft resolution reaffirmed the right “of every state”, including Israel, to “peace within secure and recognized boundaries”.
US President Bill Clinton (C) PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House, Washington, DC, 13 September 1993 (AFP)
Palestinian negotiators’ diplomatic overtures confirm the initiative’s conciliatory intent. “The PLO”, they insisted, “was in no way demanding the destruction of the State of Israel”, “wishes to avoid eliciting a US veto of the resolution”, and accepted affirmation of Israeli sovereignty as a “major concession”. As if to expunge lingering doubts, the PLO foreign minister penned an op-ed on the eve of the council’s vote, lauding the text as “consonant with … a just peace”.
How did Israel react to this unprecedented peace offer? Resolving to “never negotiate” with “terrorists”, it launched “preemptive” air strikes against Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, killing dozens. The wanton slaughter of civilians made President Gerald Ford “sick”, but politics trampled conscience – Washington quashed UN condemnation of the massacre.
And the Arab-Palestinian draft resolution? Defying the Security Council majority, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered it vetoed, killing this landmark “opportunity for peace”. The PLO bitterly condemned the ‘tyranny of the veto’.
Chomsky’s critics dismiss the 1976 peace initiative, arguing that the fratricidal Lebanese civil war rendered Palestinian recognition of Israel unthinkable. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) discerned that Arafat was “willing and able” to deliver – the 1976 initiative was not an aberration, but began a deluge of Palestinian two-state proposals, in 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1982.
Continuity of Israel’s rejectionism
By 1981, the whole American intelligence community – including the CIA, State Department and Department of Defence – had converged on these two judgments: that firstly, in exchange for independent Palestinian statehood, Arafat was “prepared to recognize Israel’s right to exist” and “could probably enforce the discipline necessary to obtain acceptance of this within the PLO”; and secondly, that “in Israel there is broad agreement among nearly all political parties … that there can be no total withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders” and “even if the PLO were to modify its charter to recognize Israel”, all mainstream Israeli political parties “would still oppose” Palestinian statehood.
The basic impasse emerges crystal clear: the whole world – including the Palestinian leadership – stood united behind a pragmatic, if imperfect, resolution to the conflict; a recalcitrant Israel, backed by Washington’s paralyzing power, stood alone in rejecting it.
So, what’s changed in the 40 years since? A little, but not a lot.
In November 1988, the PLO formalized its recognition of Israel, despite Tel Aviv’s unaltered refusal to contemplate Palestinian rights. In the 1990s, Israel acceded to negotiations with the PLO under American auspices, even as it strategically refashioned its architecture of domination. And in 2002, Washington finally condoned a Security Council resolution calling for a two-state outcome.
But the most notable aspect of Israel’s policy has been the continuity of its rejectionism. Neither Israel’s ostensible 2000 nor 2007-09 peace offers met the minimum “good faith” threshold of the international consensus, while, since then, all Israeli governments have openly rejected the Palestinian right to a viable state.
Since 2014, even the pretense of negotiations has been dropped. The peace process is an annexation process: Israeli colonization steams ahead, while Palestinian resistance and moderation are crushed with undifferentiated force.
Hinging fulfilment of Palestinian rights to a negotiated agreement has lent Israeli colonization and apartheid in Palestine a veneer of temporariness, even as the regime works overtime to ensure its own permanence.
After decades of abuse, the prevailing paradigm has morphed into the grotesque, as Palestinian rights are interminably held hostage by a bad-faith negotiator: always tomorrow, never today… forever.
To realize Palestinian self-determination, it’s past high time that the World Court ended this mockery of law and justice.
Colter Louwerse holds a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter; his research focuses on the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and statehood at the United Nations